Meyer receives the Nininger Award for valor at arms

By Jorge Garcia PV Staff Writer - October 30, 2020
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Maj. John Meyer, the Officer Chief Legislative Liaison (OCLL) at the Pentagon, remembered, in 2007, when the rugged, mountainous Afghanistan valley, near Kunar Province, awoke to the sounds of small arms fire and rocket propulsion grenade explosions setting the picturesque scene ablaze. 

The Afghan Army National Soldiers, traveling with the 191st Cavalry Regiment, the Reconnaissance Squadron for the 173rd Airborne Brigade, crossed a small walking bridge traversing the north side of the Kunar River. The Afghan Soldiers saw enemy personnel 100 meters away from their position. It was a surprise to both parties, and within that moment, the firefight that would change Meyer’s life forever commenced.   

"I truly believe to this day, and I’ll say it in the speech tonight (during the Nininger Award Ceremony), the enemy had no idea we were coming," Meyer said during his interview at West Point with the nationally-syndicated podcast, the Sphere. 

Later that evening, distinguished guests, members of the Long Gray line and the Corps of Cadets took part during the 2020 Alexander R. Nininger Award Ceremony for Valor at Arms on Oct. 22, in the Cadet Mess Hall, to commemorate Meyer for his efforts leading Soldiers during combat. Throughout the day and into the evening leading up to the ceremony, Meyer shared his story with cadets and people at West Point and across the nation through the podcast, touching upon what it truly means to summon the personal courage needed to serve one’s country during times of war. 

"Winning matters because there is no honorable mention in combat," the Commandant of the Corps of Cadets, Brig. Gen. Curtis Buzzard, said as he stood before the podium extolling Meyer for his heroic efforts during his deployment. Todd Browne, the president and chief executive officer of the West Point Association of Graduates, called upon Meyer in the audience to bestow him with the Nininger Award. 

Meyer came forth and Browne placed the Nininger Award medallion around his neck. Meyer took to the podium as the cadets continued with their thunderous applause. As silence gradually fell upon the audience, Meyer began the story of his arduous journey that garnered him the prestigious award. 

"For me, what truly gave me passion to serve was to lead Soldiers," Meyer said during his podcast interview. "I came during a peace-time academy in 2001. The towers fell in September, and West Point changed and became a war-time academy. I knew what I wanted to do, and I wanted to lead men into war — my heart was certainly focused on (the infantry branch)." 

Meyer explained during the podcast that following his graduation in 2005; he pursued the infantry branch going through Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course (IBOLC), Ranger School and Airborne School. He began his tenure as an infantry officer with the 191st Cavalry Regiment, the reconnaissance squadron for the 173rd airborne brigade. 

In 2006, Meyer and his regiment spent under 12 months training for a 2007 deployment to Iraq, however, due to a sudden change in plans, the 173rd was then scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan.   

"No one ever shows up 100% prepared for every single situation. Given the foundation taught in this institution, given the infantry pipeline taught in IBOLC and in Ranger School, given that just under a year I spent training with my platoon and my troops, I felt prepared," Meyer said. "I think there were certain things we could’ve done better as an organization, and we’re the 173rd — we’re a fit organization, but the mountains of Northeastern Afghanistan can certainly humble you quickly." 

The 173rd Airborne Brigade was stationed at the combat outpost Camp Keating, Afghanistan. Meyer knew of the dangers that lied ahead during his deployment at Camp Keating. However, 173rd’s mentality as a troop was to project force on the enemy, or the enemy would project force on them. 

"We talk about preparedness — but that first two and a half months in the country, prior to July 27 — we were incredibly busy projecting force and really trying to change the atmosphere in the valley," Meyer said. 

The battle rhythm for the first couple of months was tense. Camp Keating sat down at the bottom of a mountainous valley, which left the post exposed to enemy attack from above. In response to this threat, Observation Post Warheit, now known as Observation Post Fritsche, stood above Camp Keating to provide overhead support, Meyer said. 

He added there were four infantry maneuver platoons in the troop patrolling between Warheit and Keating. Every Soldier that wasn’t on guard duty at the posts conducted patrol rotations. The troops also conducted multi-day field patrols in villages within the valley, gaining influence among the locals in the area. 

"In the month of July, 191st Cavalry planned a large scale operation to secure the ground route from Forward Operating Base Nurey — all the way north to Camp Keating," Meyer said during his acceptance speech at the ceremony. "The concept of the operation was for all the troops and companies to establish short-term observation posts and defensive positions along the route." 

Meyer added the 191st expected enemy contact. As the platoon leader for 2nd platoon Bulldog Troop, Meyer was tasked with the mission of initiating key-leader engagement along the Kunar River to the east of Camp Keating while securing observation posts. Dave Roller, USMA Class of 2005, led a portion of first platoon to establish an overwatch position and observe the village in the route leading to their objective, 24 hours before their departure. 

Meyer’s Bulldog Troop and Troop Headquarters served as the main effort for the mission and departed their combat outposts during the early morning hours of July 27. Upon departing the village, Meyers led his squad along with attached snipers, who conducted reconnaissance up the mountain to locate a suitable position for the troop, Meyer explained. 

During this time, the attached Afghan Army Soldiers crossed the river through the small bridge and unbeknownst to Meyer, the Bulldog troop along with the Afghan Soldiers would head into a nightmare of enemy contact less than one-hundred meters away. Immediately, both sides began to engage one another with small arms fire and RPGs. 

"An enemy force of over 150 fighters were prepositioned in caves and ambush locations on both sides of the river," Meyer said. "1st platoon’s overwatch position was attacked first high on the ridgeline, then the enemy turned the attention on the main effort deep in the valley. A Soldier from 1st platoon was shot in the neck, and soon after, my mortar men were shot at (while they provided) effective fire on the enemy." 

The action on the ground quickly evolved into a difficult situation. Meyer’s platoon was now split. His lead platoon was 100 meters up the mountain reconning the operation post location while the remainder of the platoon and troop headquarters were in hasty defensive positions at the base of the mountain. 

"It took (the enemy) time to move into their pre-dug ambush positions located on the mountainside. At this point in the fight, it was morning on July 27," Meyer said. "We had a medevac aircraft in route for the first platoon Soldier (who took a shot to the neck), and my platoon had already sustained several casualties due to gunshot wounds." 

Meyer continued his speech highlighting the actions of distinct heroes on the battlefield during that fateful day to give the Corps of Cadets context on what it means to uphold courage in the face of adversity. He spoke about his troop commander at the time, Maj. Thomas Bostick, a former enlisted Ranger and experienced warrior who fought in multiple combat deployments in the Middle East with the 75th Ranger Regiment weeks after the Twin Towers fell. 

"My men and I would’ve followed him to hell and back," Meyer said as he illuminated the cadets on Bostick’s heroic efforts. "Bulldog Troop was Bostick’s second command. He led, not by verbose yelling — Maj. Bostick led by his personal example. As the fighting intensified on July 27, it was Maj. Bostick who kept the team calm. He was never flustered and even kept things light on the radio. Maj. Bostick directed attack aviation, artillery and continued to lead by personal example until an enemy RPG struck his position killing him and injuring all the members of the troop headquarters." 

"It can be said, ‘a leaders actions is judged not by his unit’s actions under his command but by the actions of his Soldiers when he or she is not present,’" Meyer said of Bostick’s efforts as a leader. 

Bulldog Troop continued to push the fight to the enemy battling through an array of bullets clinking against the cover of the armor plating of Humvees. They battled through insurmountable odds in the face of uncertainty — in the face of a horribly drawn-out death that threatened their chances for survival. Sgt. Robert Fortner, the platoon medic, was shot around the time  Bostick was killed. Fortner continued treating casualties, despite his injuries, refusing to be medically evacuated. Through sheer willpower and personal courage, he continued to provide medical support for his fallen comrades, Meyer added. 

"Sgt. Fortner set the example for all of us and received the Silver Star for his actions," Meyer said. "Sgts. Henley and Wilson, team leaders in my Platoon, demonstrated humility and courage to take charge, knowing they didn’t have the experience to lead in their new positions. Both of these warriors were thrust into squad leader positions on July 27 not by choice or promotion, but out of necessity." 

Meyer said Staff Sgt. Ryan Fritsche, Meyer’s newly arrived squad leader at the time, led the squad conducting the recon up the mountain during the assault. Fritsche’s squad was attacked by enemy forces hiding in caves. In the swarm of machine gunfire shattering the air, Fritsche was shot and killed. His squad reconvened to Meyer’s location due to intense enemy fire. 

"It was now up to Sgt. Wilson and his team leader to lead the squad. Sgt. Henley entered the mission as the acting squad leader after his predecessor sustained an injury one week prior," Meyer said. "Both E-5 sergeants had a choice: let fear and the unknown of the new position take over or lead their Soldiers to the best of their ability. Both leaders rose to the occasion, making a significant impact to the platoon and the mission." 

As the battle continued, Bulldog troop contacted the Quick Reaction Force led by 3rd Platoon and included four humvees and a section of Soldiers led by their platoon leader, Alex Newsom, and senior squad leader, Staff Sgt. John Faulkenberry. Faulkenberry made four attempts to recover equipment, sensitive items and the deceased Maj. Bostick and during the recovery process, a gunshot wound shattered his femur. 

Faulkenberry was in dire need of medical assistance with all three platoons warding off the assault of a numerically superior force.

Bostick’s body lay 100 meters above Meyer’s position, and the enemy was steadily advancing in between Bulldog Troop’s location Meyer explained. 

"Many casualties required immediate evacuation. Following the Apache’s arrival, they managed to provide their ample support," Meyer said. "But the enemy unveiled a Degtyarov Shpagin Krupnokalibernyi (DSHK) heavy weapon machine gun on the mountainside above me. The machine-gun fire struck the Apaches, forcing them to return to base. The only remaining external assets providing effective fire were Air Force fixed-wing. After discussions (on the radio) with other lieutenants, and my platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Johnny Hawley, we made the decision to fight back to a more defensible position." 

Meyer ordered his troop to move to the trucks, use them for cover and fight their way out of the ambush area. He added how incredible the resiliency of an American Soldier is. 

"Stevenson, Gates, Barba, Dunn, Trapline, Eldridge and many others did not question or argue they moved out with violent intent and courage," Meyer said of his Soldiers. 

He added the humvees were completely full of injured Soldiers. Every abled body ran beside the trucks engaging the enemy on both sides of the river. During exfiltration, the formation was pinned due to intense enemy fire. Various RPG rounds exploded around them, leaving multiple Soldiers wounded with one Soldier, Pfc. Barba shot in the jaw. 

"While pinned down, Barba turned to me and said, ‘Sir, I’m shot!’ All I can do in the moment was to tell Barba to continue moving forward. We were in the kill zone and had to maintain momentum, so Pfc. Barba, shot in the jaw, continued to engage the enemy and lead by example," Meyer said. "These Soldiers owed me nothing but gave me their everything for the unit, for the mission, and most importantly, for each other." 

Meyer said the Soldiers managed to carve their way through the ambush zone, establishing a new defensive position at the base of 1st Platoon’s overwatch location. All wounded Soldiers, including Bostick, were evacuated. July 27 was a testament to the 191st Cavalry Regiment, the Reconnaissance Squadron for the 173rd Airborne Brigade fervent commitment to safeguarding the nation. 

"On July 27, 2007, Bulldog Troop lost two great Americans and sustained almost a platoon’s worth of casualties, but in contrast, the estimated enemy casualties were staggeringly high," Meyer said. "This award is dedicated to my platoon Bulldog Troop and the families of Maj. Thomas Bostick and Staff Sgt. Ryan Fritsche." 

In the spirit of educating the Corps of Cadets on the life lessons he learned throughout his military career, Meyer imparted words of wisdom. 

"Be authentic and be yourself. When bullets start flying, your Soldiers will look to you. They won’t look for perfection or the smartest military plan; they’ll look for courage and leadership from the officer standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them. When in charge, take charge. Care and show your Soldiers that you care," Meyer said. "Colin Powell said, ‘get mad then get over it.’ Tough times don’t last, but tough leaders and organizations do. It doesn’t matter what branch you choose. Be great in whatever you do. I am optimistic about the future of this land because of you: the leaders who will take this country into the future."   

Meyer looked to the crowd with a joyful grin and said, "I’m going to need help with this one," followed by the entire Corps of Cadets echoing the words with him, "Go Army, Beat Navy!"